Conquring Demons (Race Polo v Polo GT TSI)
A well set up race car, and a fast road car, help a rally driver overcome his fears
Words by Aniruddha Rangnekar & Photography by Gaurav S Thombre
Confidence is everything for a driver in a motor race. The confidence to brake late and get on the gas early; the confidence to lean on the car just that little bit more, carry that extra speed through a tricky corner, hit the kerbs harder. It’s what separates the men from the boys, the truly gifted driver from the gentleman racer.
I’m the latter, as is obvious to the two mechanics and a dog hanging around at the end of the main straight at the Kari Speedway in Coimbatore. Barrelling down the main straight, speed creeping above 150kmph, I focus on getting my braking spot-on. The braking markers come into view, 200 metres, one nasty bump, 100 metres … I tell myself to wait, wait for the 50, but my brain chickens out and orders the right foot to stomp on the brake pedal. I brake too early, wipe off too much speed and enter C1, the long parabola, at a crawl. Late braking. It’s the hardest thing to master. Three years of rallying has ensured speed doesn’t scare me and I can catch a car that gets out of shape. But I have this perennial fear of out-braking myself. In a race, you brake late and run wide. In a rally, you brake late, miss your braking point and hit the tree. And trees don’t bend.
Which is why I’m here – to conquer my demons.If ever I’m going to become anything more than a gentleman racer, I’ll have to get over my fear of late braking. And in the Race Polo car I find the perfect accomplice.
Session two. I’m really getting into the groove of things. Take it ten metres at a time. Brake later and later until eventually I hit it. Hit the brakes at 50 metres, say a small prayer, turn in for C1 and make it. No drama, no histrionics; the Polo turns, doesn’t get out of shape and is ready for the next input. And in a nutshell that tells you everything you need to know about the Race Polo – the most forgiving race car in the country. Take liberties with any other race car and at best it’d lock up and run wide, maybe have a small excursion into the gravel traps. If you haven’t said your prayers then you’re looking at swapped ends; some tin-top racers even have a nasty propensity to dig into the gravel traps and flip.
The Race Polo, equipped with race-ABS does not lock up so you can brake hard, trail-brake (carry the brakes as you turn into the corner) and really lean on the suspension and tyres without risk of either one biting back. And it does so with so much feel and confidence, the feedback through the brake pedal being astonishingly good, you can judge the brake pressure to the last microgramme.
And did I mention, the Cup car has an automatic gearbox, VW’s famous DSG? So you brake, turn and just concentrate on where you want to go; the car does all the downshifting for you. Sure, if you’re competing for the last tenth you will manually flick up and down the ’box but even that is done via paddles on the steering wheel, no need to clutch, heel-and-toe and exercise the left hand. It really is the simplest race car in the world to pilot.
And fast. Thanks to super- and turbo-charging, the Race Polo TSI can get to some serious speeds and seriously quickly. The 1.4-litre TSI engine delivers 180bhp of power and in a car that weighs 1195kg it makes for a competitive power-to-weight ratio of 150bhp/tonne. What you have to bear in mind is the Cup car runs in single-make championship where the focus is on ensuring performance parity of all the cars. And reliability. Which the Polo Cup, over the past three seasons, has proved in ample measure, unearthing the next generation of Indian racing stars along the way.
What the championship hasn’t done is give credence to the ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ mantra. Until now.
Meet the Polo GT. A humble road-going Polo but with genes that can be traced to the race car. Sure, it looks like your average diesel Polo but underneath the hood is the most advanced engine in its class – a 1.2TSI engine mated to a 7-speed DSG gearbox. Just like the Cup car then.
Visually, the cars couldn’t be more similar, or more different. The Cup car sits super low on its racing suspension and 17-inch wheels, the GT rides high on road suspension and 15-inch wheels. There are the bonnet vents, lip spoiler, and big rear wing that makes the Cup car look like a proper racer. The GT gets none of this, which is weird. Ridiculous, even considering there’s the Polo SR that has a 1.2-litre engine but gets all the sporty addenda.
Nevertheless we are here to drive and the GT delivers on that front – finally, here’s proof of racing technologies, tested under the extreme pressure of motorsport making its way to a road car. The 1.2 TSI motor of the GT makes do with only turbo-charging but yet the direct petrol injection motor delivers a cracking 105bhp of power. Which in a hatchback is plenty enough.
Later in the morning I swap into the GT for a few hot laps around the Kari Speedway and while the performance difference with the Cup car is obvious, it isn’t as yawning as I imagined. Acceleration is sprightly and power delivery is stunningly immediate; breathe on the throttle and the power is there for the asking. Turbocharging ensures there’s a solid slug of torque waiting to be unleashed well down the rev range and that means the GT picks up its skirts and hurtles out of the slower corners with tremendous enthusiasm.
One does have to drive her sensibly; after all this is a road car, on road tyres, with normal brakes but accounting for all of those grip levels through the corners is still rather good. Ultimately, like all road cars, she will squeal like a gaggle of teenaged girls at a Justin Bieber concert and understeer but upgrade the tyres (which are too high profile and fold on the sidewall under high cornering loads) and you will instantly shave seconds off your lap time, allowing the inherently sporty nature of the chassis to be exploited. I should know, I rally a Polo and can tell you the torsional stiffness of the chassis is so high that we removed the front strut brace because it made the shell too stiff.
The electric power steering is too light and on the track it makes it really difficult to know where the limits lie, but when things get out of shape ESP chimes in to sort out matters. In fact, ESP can’t be fully turned off so if you want to drift the GT you will really have to abuse her.
Best of all is the gearbox – a 7-speed DSG unit that is closely related to that in the Race Polo. Like the Cup car, you stick it in Sport mode and she does everything for you, downshifting just when required and similarly on the upshifts as well. Of course the lack of steering wheel paddles is a downer but tapping the gear lever fore and aft isn’t too much of a chore either.
And so I drive the GT harder, get on the gas earlier out of the last corner, marvel at the GT’s stability and composure down the main straight at the Kari Speedway, wait for the braking marker and conquer my demons. Nail the brakes at the very last metre. A nice pulse from the brake pedal courtesy the road-going ABS, DSG ’box shifting down one, two, three gears, trail-brake as I point the car at the apex, a dab of opposite lock and the tail goes light and wide, get on the gas to pull her out of the slide, inside front wheel spinning up before ESP cuts in, and get the TSI motor to pull hard and fast to the next corner. The speeds might be lower but the feel and sensation are not that far removed from a proper race car.
Finally here’s a car with motorsport genes and heritage that you can buy from a showroom, drive to work every day and have (a lot of!) fun in over the weekends. Maybe it’ll even help you conquer your demons.
RACE POLO 1.4 TSI
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1390cc,
turbocharged and supercharged
Power 180bhp @ 6200rpm
Torque 250Nm @ 2000-4500rpm
Transmission Six-speed twin-clutch DSG automatic with paddle shifters, front-wheel drive, LSD
Front suspension MacPherson struts with adjustable 20mm dia 3-way adjustable Sachs dampers
Rear suspension Torsion beam axle with 3-way adjustable Sachs dampers
Brakes 334mm ventilated discs (front),
232mm discs (rear), race ABS
Wheels 7.5x17in front and rear
Tyres 200/65 R17 (front), 200/65 R17 (rear)
Weight (kerb) 1195kg
0-100kmph 8.0 seconds
Top speed 210kmph
POLO GT TSI
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1197cc,
Power 104bhp @ 5000rpm
Torque 175Nm @ 1500-4100rpm
Transmission Seven-speed twin-clutch DSG automatic, front-wheel drive, ESP
Front suspension Independent MacPherson struts, stabiliser bar
Rear suspension Torsion beam
with coil springs
Brakes Ventilated discs front,
drums rear, ABS
Wheels 6Jx15in front and rear
Tyres 185/65 R15 front and rear
Weight (kerb) 1140kg
0-100kmph 10.1 seconds
Top speed 186kmph